What's in Your Magic Bag?

Researchers at MIT envision a bag of tiny machines that can assemble into just about anything…

Remember that scene in the 1964 Mary Poppins film where Julie Andrews manages to retrieve everything from plants to coat hangers out of her hand bag? Well… there’s no magic involved however,   the  Distributed Robotics Lab (DRL) and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence lab (CSAIL) at MIT are currently working on something rather similar.

Imagine tossing a tiny replica of a common tool like a screwdriver into a bag full of sand and being able to pull out the real thing moments later. To accomplish something akin to this, researchers are working with small cubic robots enabled with rudimentary microprocessors and special magnets on each of their four sides. Unlike permanent magnets, these ones can be turned on and off and they don’t require a constant current to maintain their magnetism. The cubes’ magnets allow them to connect, communicate and  share power.

The form of the desired object is defined by placing a miniature model of the obeject among the robotic cubes, algorithms then guide then guide them into shape. However, these aren’t your everyday reconfigurable robots; instead of putting themselves together like pieces of a puzzle, it’s rather a process of elimination. Eventually, researchers hope to be working with elements much smaller than the 10 mm squared cubes they’re working with now; a material they’re calling ¨smart sand¨.

¨A heap of smart sand would be analogous to the rough block of stone that a sculptor begins with. The individual grains would pass messages back and forth and selectively attach to each other to form a three-dimensional object; the grains not necessary to build that object would simply fall away,¨ explains Larry Hardesty of the MIT News Office.

At the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation this May, researchers from the DRL and CSAIL will present a paper that describes the algorithms that could enable such a material.

Check out the video above to get a better idea of what this looks like in action! Could robotic technology be applied in other unexpected ways? Click HERE to find out about a European initiative that believes in investigating new areas where robotics research can be applied.


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